Making a Buck with Wile and Some Hot Air

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Addressing the annual security conference in Munich on Saturday, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who was once a leading candidate to succeed President Vladimir Putin, said, "We respect those values that the United States and Europe have cultivated for centuries. They cannot, however, serve as the standard by which other nations should measure their own political systems, national cultures and mentalities."

This was just the latest Kremlin declaration of what it means to be a "sovereign democracy."

Ivanov's discussion of Russian versus Western values reminded me of two incidents that I witnessed recently on Moscow's public transportation.

The first happened on a trolleybus. It was one of those days when the snow and slush turn Moscow streets into a filthy obstacle course for pedestrians. A woman in her 70s was about to step down from the trolleybus at a stop, but she was afraid of landing on the snow and ice on the street. She turned to a well-dressed young man and asked him to help her down. "[Expletive] off" he replied, quite matter-of-factly and without any particular emotion. "What was that for?" the woman asked as tears started to swell up in her eyes.

This concerns the question of values: What is the reason for this unprovoked, groundless animosity toward anyone and everyone that we are seeing in Moscow?

The next scene took place on a different trolleybus on a different day. A young woman tried to buy a ticket from the driver. He shrugged and said, "Don't worry about it." She insisted on paying for her fare. He waved her away and opened the central doors so she could get on without having to go through the turnstile. She then made her way through half the bus and the throng of passengers back to the front of the bus. She knocked on the driver's window and demanded to buy a ticket. He again waved her away. "Just ride for free, " he said. The girl gave in and finally took a seat.

At the next stop an inspector stepped on and began checking the passengers for tickets. When this young woman was found without a ticket, he demanded that she pay a fine. She explained how she had tried to buy a ticket but that the driver refused. She appealed to the driver and some of the passengers joined in, but the driver claimed that he had never seen the woman before. In the end, she paid the fine and started to cry.

To be sure, reports of how hundreds of passersby show complete indifference to someone lying sick on the sidewalk are nothing new. But the two incidents that I saw on the trolleybus underscore how Russian values, ethics and morals have truly deteriorated over the last several years. I have noticed an increase in rage and hostility people exhibit toward those around them and the absence of a basic willingness to help each other.

Moreover, society as a whole seems to have become totally apathetic to politics and the condition of the country. It is indeed a rare occasion when an event stirs people into taking some kind of stance or action.

A basic moral code and set of laws help regulate society in most Western countries. The moment they are applied to Russia, however, the ever-resourceful and wily Russian mind will find some way to get around the rules and make a nice buck while doing it. Russians are indeed quite ingenious; they can create illegal schemes that no one could every dream up in other countries.

Society is lacking a basic moral foundation -- an understanding of what is good and bad. Our politicians can attack Western values for as long as they want, but this criticism is nothing more than blowing a lot of hot air -- and this will remain the case until Russia develops some moral values of its own.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City-FM.